Cover Has Become a Bad Word

Image by Foundry Co via Pixabay. CC0/Public domain license.

For several centuries the word cover simply meant to put a lid on, or run for it. All definitions of cover had it as a material thing. Those, and similar meanings, lasted until a flack in the fifties expanded the definition to explain a pop music star making a record of a current recording by a much lesser star. In that application it meant the big star recording would cover up a lesser star’s record. Oddly, or not, that use of the word cover never gained much traction, although it continued the idea of putting a lid on something. Since then cover has grown like Topsy to describe a recording that is made that after the first recording.

For most of the twentieth century, there were recording artists who cut records of songs written by songwriters. Usually, the songwriters were not well known, with the exception of big time songwriters such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and few others. A recording artist could choose between recording a Tin Pan Alley song, or a song written for Broadway, or written for the movies, or even written for radio. It was unusual for a songwriter to cut records of their own compositions. The concept of “singer-songwriter” was not yet in use. It was common for a pop song to be recorded simultaneously by several recording artists. A record buyer in 1931 would often have the choice between Ruth Etting, Russ Columbo, Bing Crosby, Lee Morse, and other versions of a good song. Hit songs such as “Body and Soul,” “Yes, Sir! That’s My Baby!, “Try a Little Tenderness, “Aint She Sweet” and others have resulted in hundreds of recordings over the years. Not one of them was called a cover — until recently.

It was also common for a song to languish for years before becoming a hit. The song “As Time Goes By” was written in 1931 as part of the score of the musical “Everybody’s Welcome.” In 1990 I was in Boston showing movies. My host was Jack Stevenson. In the Boston subway a string band was setup playing old songs. After “As Time Goes By” was played the leader said it was written for the 1942 movie Casablanca. I corrected him by stating it was written by Herman Hupfeld in 1931 and only later was it used in Casablanca. As I walked away with Jack he said to me “That poor guy, I had to bring you down here; if not, he could have continued on in blissful ignorance.” In 1915 the song “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” was a minor hit. It was pulled out the trunk in 1950 in the movie Two Weeks With Love, where it was sung by Carlton Carpenter and Debbie Reynolds. Their version was made into a record that hit number three on the charts. The song “Blue Moon,” by Rodgers and Hart, was first recorded under the title “Prayer” to be sung in an MGM short film. It went nowhere. R & H thought it was too good a melody to fail, so they changed the lyrics, with a new title “The Bad in Every Man,” where it appeared in the movie Manhattan Melodrama, sung by Shirley Ross, and again it sank without little notice. R & H then changed the title and lyrics, and it was a hit as “Blue Moon.”

The Walter Donaldson song “My Baby Just Cares for Me” was minor hit in 1930. In 1957 it was recorded by Nina Simone. Her version was used in a perfume commercial in 1987 and finally became a hit. The Nina Simone recording of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” is an example of a recording artist making a version of a song that is a much different interpretation than all earlier versions. The song “Body and Soul” was a hit soon after it came out in 1930. Coleman Hawkins recorded an instrumental version in 1939 that astounded everyone who heard it. His recording was not regarded as just another recording of an old song, but as something astonishing and new. It is the only version, and there are hundreds, included in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. This brings us to different form of composition called a contrafact. Those are new songs built on the chord changes of old songs. In the new version the old melody and lyrics are scrapped with something new created. Coleman Hawkins’ version of “Body and Soul” gets into the changes and barely states the melody. It is considered early be-bop. Ornette Coleman’s 1959 song “Chronology” is based on Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Charlie Parker alone created at least a dozen different songs, all on the chord changes of “I’ve Got Rhythm.”

So, getting back to the word “cover”: About twenty years after the first new use of cover regarding recordings, it was used to describe bands who only did tepid versions of earlier pop tunes. Those bands were known as “cover bands.” They were bands with no bigger ambition than recreating old songs in their original arrangements. It wasn’t till the computer age that the word finally became to mean any song recorded after the first recording and is now a very common use of the word. To indicate the pejorative taint of the word, it is never used in live performances. No band leader has ever introduced a song with the words “We are now going to cover….”

It probably never would have happened without the rise of the singer-songwriter. With the decline of Tin Pan Alley and the ascent of rock and roll, it became more common for performers to write their own music. The Beatles are an early example, although they also recorded “Ain’t She Sweet,” “Blue Moon,” and “The Sheik of Araby,” among others from the Tin Pan Alley days, as well as works by Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and others. Solo artists also began to write their own material, including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, and others. Oddly or not, they were not in the majority, with the role of songwriter separate yet still being a big part of the mix. Rap and hip-hop added another wrinkle to the recipe with “sampling,” which is not considered covering, but is considered creating from disparate elements.

The word cover is never used in classical music. There it is understood that composers compose and orchestras perform. When a symphony does Beethoven, no one writes it is a cover. It is also not used much in jazz. There, improvisation is part of the base, with jazz musicians and bands taking pride in trying to create something new in any song they choose to perform. One night at Canlis in Seattle, I was listening to Jack Brownlow playing while a loud party in the restaurant was being hosted by the trumpet player Fred Radke. I asked Jack to play the song “Home” that was composed in 1931 by Peter Van Steeden. “Home” was a never a hit song, but that night Jack created so much beauty from it that Fred Radke, in the din of his party, heard it, and rushed up to Jack when it was finished and blurted out “What was that song?” Jack replied it was the song “Home.” Fred, who knew the song “Home” looked deflated as he left, muttering “I know that song.” Yes, Fred knew the song, but when Jack played, it was not what Fred knew, but something so creative and beautiful that Fred thought it was something he had never heard. To call what Jack played a “cover” is so far from truth to be laughable.

The modern use of cover is mostly seen online at sites such as Wikipedia and Youtube. Awhile back I asked a retired New York Times writer if the Times style manual addressed the word cover. He said he didn’t know and that he didn’t have copy of the manual to consult. I have seen the word cover misused in the Times. I hope later they will make a comment in their style manual to address it. It is shame that William Safire, whose column the Times, “On Language,” died with him. He’d probably have strangled it in the crib.

So, why does this use of the word cover bother me so? First, cover is a lazy, most common denominator, one size fits all way, to describe a many-faceted subject. It dumbs down rather than elucidates. It is also pejorative. It implies the first version is somehow better, and all later versions are lesser. It is also misleading. It seems to be an example of content collapse. A few weeks ago I was at a outdoor brew put where a singer songwriter was performing on stage, in Enterprise, Oregon. He had a nice voice and could play the guitar, but he couldn’t write a song to save his soul. I was once advised by a sax player that when singing I should vary my keys and vary my tempos. This singer-songwriter had apparently never gotten that lesson. Song after song was in the same key and the same tempo. After each song there was some polite applause, but he was arising no enthusiasm. Still he slogged on, led astray thinking that doing anything else was to be a “cover artist.” A week later I was in Silverton, Oregon at an outdoors event. There on the stage was a band that was composed of three acoustic guitars, a violin, and was led by mandolin player. Everyone in the band could sing. The band was notable by not using a drummer, piano or bass. They did songs from various sources, “Magic Carpet Ride,” “Down on the Corner,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Big Leg Woman,” and others. Each version was a new interpretation of an old song, new in various and creative ways. For one thing, I doubt any previous versions of those songs did not use a drummer. With a string band the beat is more supple. The music was so good people got up to dance and was disappointed when the band left the stage. I am certain that no one in the audience considered their versions to be “covers.” They knew they were hearing creative music.

Categories Music

Dennis Nyback is a legendary independent film archivist and historian. Formerly of Seattle, he now resides in Portland, OR with his 13,000 film collection and a clear conscience.

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